Activist, Academic… and Target?

Abigail Mitchell (she/her) is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Guelph and holds an MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy from U of G.  Originally from Mississauga, ON, Abigail is a proud bisexual woman who serves on the U of G Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Advisory Committee for Students and the Research Ethics Board. Her research focuses on domestic homicide, sexual femicide, and internet-facilitated child sexual abuse. 

A photograph portrait of Abigail Mitchell. She stands in front of a beige, vignette background and is smiling warmly. She has light brown eyes and hair and is wearing a baby blue, short-sleeve button up with a gold necklace.

This June, as a part of the University of Guelph’s CSAHS Pride Month programming, I participated in the event “On LGBTQ2IA+ Inclusion: In Conversation with Abigail Mitchell and Caleb Harwood.” I spoke about my experience presenting at the Canadian Sociological Association’s annual conference, where I presented a paper I’d written on making women-only spaces inclusive of trans women. This was my first foray into public speaking; up until then, I’d only ever presented my work to my peers, professors, and fellow academics. The presentation was well received, and I promptly moved on to preparing for my PhD qualifying exams in the Fall and celebrating Pride Month with my community.

At 11pm on June 28th, I found out that there had been a stabbing at the University of Waterloo. I texted my friends from Guelph, one of whom begins her PhD at Waterloo in the fall, asking if they had heard. None had. Quickly we were all sharing news articles about what class was attacked, how many people were injured, and what their conditions were. Although the Waterloo Philosophy faculty page had been taken down, the public class schedule listed the professor assigned to teach the class, who the public later found out to be the professor who was attacked.

We all had different ways of handling the news. I doom scrolled on social media, while some of my peers took a step back to protect their mental health, and others shared resources for those impacted by the attack. While I do not recommend overconsuming social media following a tragedy, especially one where trolls could be expected to mock the tragedy due to the social issues surrounding it, I am glad that I came upon organizers from Kitchener/Waterloo who were planning a rally protesting the attack. It was comforting having something to do; I could be useful making signs and gathering community members instead of sitting with my thoughts.

A group of protesters wearing masks hold signs that say, “Misogyny is an Epidemic”, “This is why we still need Pride”, and “We deserve to feel Safe”. Abigail Mitchell stands in the centre holding a sign that says “UG and UW Against Hate.”

The event at Waterloo was brief but impactful. Many students and community members shared their reactions to hearing about the attack, their anxieties and fears, their anger, and their will for the future to be better. Still, I wasn’t internalizing what had happened; I was focused on listening to smart, young leaders bring together the LGBTQIA2S+ and broader Waterloo communities.

It wasn’t until one of my friends brought up the fact that I had been in the same position as that professor with my “On LGBTQ2IA+ Inclusion” presentation that I was forced to confront my reality: the work that I do and who I am places me in danger. I have friends who are teaching assistants for gender issues courses, colleagues who teach about feminist theory, and mentors who speak at events devoted to ending sexual and gender-based violence. I do not think that it is a coincidence that many of us are women, and many of us are queer.

What frightens me most is that it was frankly dumb luck that no one came to my event with a mission and a weapon, something that I had not considered happening prior to the Waterloo attack. While I’m thankful that I have been woken up out of my ignorance, I do not enjoy having this knowledge. I do not want to wonder if each day will be the day that an incel or homophobe decides that I deserve to die. I also don’t see this getting any better as I progress in my academic career; I expect the hate and harassment to increase as my work gains more public recognition.

What the event at Waterloo showed me is that I am not alone in my fear and frustration. Racialized academics and activists have these same concerns, along with the added danger of racists and xenophobes trying to permanently silence them. What we can all agree upon is that our institutions need to help prevent future attacks by disavowing the hateful rhetoric that fuels this type of violence whenever it is espoused, and they must centre marginalized voices when discussing how to make campus a safe place for everyone. I should not have to feel like a fool for not having an escape route from research presentations in the event that someone else feels that my advocacy work for people who are oppressed due to their gender or sexuality is an attack on them and the power structures they benefit from.

-Written by Abigail Mitchell

(The original blog 'A Bisexual Woman in Sheep's Clothing: Popping Bubbles, Broadening Horizons' has been removed at the author's request)